The road trip. Throughout my life I have almost always chosen to travel by car over air. Even as my children were born, that still seemed to me a more obvious choice. Friends could not believe that I would put my three girls in the back seat of my truck and drive halfway across the country – and actually enjoy it. But you miss everything – all of the real stuff – when up there in the sky. The rolling fields that still echo of battle cries; the ghosts of our forebears haunting historic landmarks; the brick streets and soda fountain soul of Main Street USA; the way the Rocky Mountains rise from the Great Plains as if waking an ancient beast from a long slumber; the diversity of people, architecture and food – all of these experiences can be found behind the wheel, not 40,000 feet above ground.
There is an old adage that travel changes you. In what way? Well, in absolutely every way. Our lives are shaped by our shared experiences, and giving our kids the opportunity to see the world outside of their proverbial bubbles teaches them that the earth is a big, beautiful, multifaceted and evolving entity – one they will care about deeply if given the opportunity to explore its depths.
But "traveling with children" – those words alone are enough to send some parents reaching for a bottle of Pinot. The belief that kids can't handle long road trips and the assumption of their perceived lack of patience can deter many adults from hitting the long road with a car full of kids. Patience in general can often be one of the most significant challenges when traveling with children – not just their patience, but ours as well.
We typically take care (and a great deal of time and money) to plan what we foresee as the perfect family road trip, but it's important not to forget that kids are kids. They may not be as inspired by their new surroundings as we are, and we often expect them to elicit the same reactions we are experiencing – and often they will. But don't be disappointed if they are underwhelmed. And certainly don't exhibit your disappointment in any lack of enthusiasm they may share. Emotions on the road can be tied to exhaustion, overwhelm, missing home and a host of other issues. Give your children the space and confidence to take in and process the new world around them at their own pace, and you'll be rewarded with kids who want to get back on the road with you sooner rather than later.
In my family, one of our favorite ways to engage our children on the road is by encouraging them to create collections along the way. Collections can foster a sense of both pride and devotion in children, providing them with a sense of purpose. Since they realize that pieces of their collections are not easily found every day, they learn to take care of things that they've had a direct hand in accumulating.
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When deciding what to collect, let your children choose. If the objects or themes will be difficult to locate, talk to them and set realistic expectations about what you'll find together. If the selected articles are a bit less challenging to hunt down, like seashells for example, talk to them about the importance of not hoarding every shell their toes find in the surf, but collecting beautiful specimens with intention.
Finally, creating collections can be the ideal sneaky learning tool. Not sure what kind of seashell that is? Encourage your kids to check out a book from the library and study the different species. Have them make a wish list of the types of shells they'd like to seek out on this trip. Certain types of shells are more abundant on particular coasts, so not only is your child learning to create a special collection of their own, but they're also assimilating a touch of marine biology and geology to boot.
What to collect is a limitless conversation. Just remember to look to your children for guidance when creating and displaying their collections. If they have specific passions, be sure to find ways that you can somehow create a collection out of those interests. If the collection is more for mama or papa than children, they will lose interest rather quickly and never really invest in the process. Remember that you can always start your own collection as well, right alongside them.
The most essential "things" you bring home together are of course your memories and new experiences. As Anita Desai, an Indian novelist and professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, proclaimed, "Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow." Travel alters the way you see yourself and the way you see the world, and it also shifts the way you view your immediate environment at home. You are forever changed by your experiences, with the new ability to see your local environment and the people in your life in an entirely new way.
Do not discount this great keepsake of your journey. Talk about your memories with those who shared them, including but not limited to the kids, and keep the flame of desire to do more, see more, and be more, alive. When I took my oldest daughter to Greece when she was 11, our relationship was being tested in ways that are a normal trajectory for the ache of adolescence. But we talked then about how we would remember that trip – how when we were angry or frustrated with each other, we would take a deep breath, hold each other and talk about Greece. Memories are the greatest of souvenirs and truly the only things you need to bring back home.